Object Criticism (Text)
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First published in 1988, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses employs magical realist tropes to explore identity formation and hybridization in the European immigrant experience. Narrated through the eyes and dreams of two Indian expatriates in Britain, the novel's portrayal of divided postcolonial selfhood and indictment of Western materialism have been routinely hailed by literary critics, with humanities scholar Harold Bloom calling the work Rushdie's “largest aesthetic achievement” and comparative literature scholar Timothy Brennan saying that the book represents, “the most ambitious novel yet published to deal with immigration in Britain.” Yet, not everyone saw The Satanic Verses as a satirical, fictionalized case study in immigrant alienation. In one of the most heavily cited acts of Islamic extremism, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former Supreme Leader of Iran and an Islamic scholar, issued a fatwa against Rushdie on Valentine's Day, 1989, urging Muslims to kill the writer and his publishers, forcing Rushdie into police protection for more than a decade.
It's easy to critique Khomeini's proclamation in ideological terms, as either nationalistic xenophobia couched in a perversion of Islamic jurisprudence, as Bernard Lewis argues, or an Occidentalist reaction to structural injustice and historical grievances, as claimed by Edward Said. Such critiques are often influenced by one's reading of the novel—does The Satanic Verses problematize Islamic culture, Western border-making, or both? Mining the novel from the perspectives of ideological and literary criticism can help us clarify questions of authorial intent, understand sociocultural effects of and upon power exertions, and deconstruct the semiotic coding of axiological motifs. What these modalities fail to account for, however, are the material constitution of textual interactions, as well as a text's or work's material effects.
The reason is twofold. First, literary criticism, within which critical ideological theories are often espoused, takes homogenized textual being as an ontological given. For example, two critics, one in Bombay and another in Berkeley, may propose oppositional interpretations of The Satanic Verses, but each takes the material composition of Rushdie's narrative to be the same in both spaces, such that they believe themselves to be debating a single text or, at the very least, a common material encounter. Second, literary criticism recuperates meaning within the perceptual dominion of a conscious reader, situating textual encounters as always already occurring within an anthropocentric aesthetic frame and, in turn, reducing the being of a text to a meta-aporia about signification. In this way, literary criticism—from new historicism and new criticism to postcolonialism and deconstruction—valorizes processual epistemological indeterminacy over contingent ontological arrangements, enacting textual boundaries by abjecting non-narratizable forms of being from the critic's performative space.
How might object-oriented ontology respond to this theoretical crisis? If, as Graham Harman has argued, modern critical gestures often fail because of their insistence on holistic entanglement and unbreakable relational schemes, what might an object-oriented textual study espouse? Harman has proposed the critical task of modifying elements of a text—such as its diction, narrative structure, or perspective—to determine at what point a text begins to lose its objectal identity. At what point is The Satanic Verses, for example, no longer recognizable as itself, thereby showing that texts are autonomous from their contexts and manifest, or sensual, properties? While valuable for excavating the substantiality of a text, Harman's exercise, nonetheless, conflates textual deformations with an original work-in-itself, glossing over the individuality and withdrawn being of literary objects forged by structural revision. Shortening The Satanic Verses in an American classroom may yield a narrative similar to its Whitbread Award winning counterpart, for instance, but this truncated text exists as an autonomous material entity that must be decontextualized from modes of production disparate from Rushdie's original. In other words, even when we alter a text to discover points at which the narrative dimension of a literary entity exceeds its context, we must remember that our alterations involve a relation between, at the very least, ourselves and the text being altered, leading to the creation of a new literary object.
A second object-oriented approach to literary criticism contends that texts are autopoietic actants productive of multiple histories. Championed by Levi Bryant and Eileen Joy, this trajectory focuses on what is “built” by texts that enter into and depart various objectal assemblages and relational networks. Premised on the notion that meaning is 'post-textual', in the sense that the ontological being of a text precedes its critical interpellation, Bryant's and Joy's approach unveils the anthropocentrism haunting modern literary criticism—namely, the reduction of texts to vehicles for transmission of latent meaning, such that the materiality of textual media is irrelevant to discussions of content. Accordingly, this theory downplays questioning authorial intent and discursive critique in favor of investigating a text's machinic productivity. Case in point: Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin amplified emancipatory affectivity in the American North, while engendering regressive effects in the pre-Civil War South. Similarly, The Satanic Verses provoked new political, religious, and irreligious affectual expressions in both the Western World and Middle East, upon its publication, spurring the creation of new objects, aesthetic sensibilities, and mereologies, like interfaith dialogues and pro-fatwā riots, as it challenged the homeostatic regulation of governing assemblages through which it circulated. Still, this critical method performs the double-move of elucidating the materiality of texts acting upon both human and nonhuman entities, while simultaneously restricting the initiation of literary architectonics to human consciousness. Perhaps, then, Bryant's and Joy's resistance to modern critical hermeneutics can best be described as 'post-correlationist', in which texts carry the potential to produce different affects and readings that can, in turn, foment changes to the material conditions in which ontologically equivalent entities interact.
Despite its limitations, post-correlationist criticism may be the closest object-oriented thinkers can come to a genuinely object-oriented literary criticism, from which cognition, criticism, and material revolutions can all be viewed as persisting both from and alongside ontologically irreducible textual objects. If contingent textual production always implicates reasoned judgements about a text, though, then it necessarily brackets nonhumans from critical processes or, at the very least, posits humans as relational intermediaries. Thus, to complement the post-correlationist maneuver, I propose deploying a critical strategy that focuses on the becoming of texts, as well as the manner in which their properties are made apparent within differing assemblages. Called 'object criticism', this move focuses on the point of relation between texts and other objects, both human and nonhuman, to glean an understanding of what happens when ontologically inexhaustible objects translate one another into their own terms. Here, the focus is not on the consequences of mediated interpretation or exegetical synthesis, but the material traces of continually repartitioned aesthetic sensibility as a textual encounter unfolds, accounting for the difference generated by an object molding its own spatiotemporality. Rather than interrogate texts as pre-determinative epistemic regimes, object criticism asks what conditions of relational possibility exist within an objectal assemblage. Rather than ground post-textual material shifts in the radical pluralization of a literary object's anthropic mediation, object criticism maps the extension of a text's agency on to its objectal peers and vice-versa, manufacturing cartographies of aleatory networks in which the combination of texts, humans, and nonhumans form new substances with withdrawn powers of their own. Of The Satanic Verses, object criticism queries the co-extensive ecological links animated by the enmeshed text's potential to stabilize and destabilize its interlocutors—how do the book's real and imaginative spaces collide with other existential loci to shape the aesthetic conditions of possibility under which its inhered powers—to challenge Islamic law, incite anti-Western clashes, and redirect diplomatic poetics—become visible. And while it doesn't compel specific normative commitments about the meaning of a text, object criticism may harvest ontopolitical insights about the contingency of relations between substances comprising a textual assemblage, relations that can be contested, resisted, or altogether broken by entities seeking new, more emancipatory forms of being.